For the fourth year in a row, St. Louis businesses say their biggest barrier to expanding employment is a lack of skilled workers. That’s according to St. Louis Community College’s annual State of the St. Louis Workforce report released Wednesday.
The new report, which surveyed over a thousand local employers, found that 1 in 3 is still having a hard time finding skilled workers.
Hart Nelson, lead author of the report, said it’s noteworthy that more than half of those employers are seeking middle-skilled workers — meaning those who have more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.
“Really, what we’re seeing is that we have an even tighter labor market than we’ve had in years past. Employers are adding more jobs, but they’re seeing caution looking forward,” said Nelson, who is the associate vice chancellor for St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group.
The number of businesses planning to hire new part-time workers hit an eight-year high, while fewer employers anticipate hiring full-time workers.
Nelson said that’s an indication some businesses are worried about the future. But overall unemployment in St. Louis is still on par with the national average at 3.6%.
In some majority African American neighborhoods, however, unemployment is as high as 36%.
In this year’s report, Nelson highlighted why some groups — including young African American men, people with disabilities and those convicted of a felony — are being left out of the job market.
Over time, he said employers have shifted their mindset when it comes to reconsidering some of these job candidates. Nelson said that’s likely because of a prolonged inability to fill jobs.
“Four years ago, over a quarter of them said, ‘We wouldn't even consider someone with a felony conviction for any of our jobs.’ Contrast that with this year, and it was less than 1%,” he said. “It was a huge shift.”
Barriers to the job market
The reason for this disconnect between unfilled jobs and jobless residents comes down to a lack of awareness and access, according to Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
“There are a lot of people who are off the grid that are not even involved and have given up hope,” McMillan said.
His organization’s Save Our Sons program is cited in Nelson’s report as an example of how local organizations are helping connect jobs to the people who need them most.
“We found that 70%-90% of our clientele in any given year are single female heads of household, so men were just not coming in our doors,” McMillan said.
“We asked a lot of the ones that we talked to and they said, ‘I’m embarrassed to ask for help. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do.’”
Over the last five years, he said the program has helped more than 750 men in the area find employment.
The Urban League is one of more than 60 partners to sign onto a new coalition launched this week, called STLWorks. The goal is to reach job seekers looking for training opportunities and pathways to careers in IT, manufacturing, health care and trades.
Kathy Osborn, head of the Regional Business Council, is spearheading the coalition, which she describes as a necessary “rebranding of skilled careers.”
Osborn said higher education has been promoted for too long as the only path to a well-paying job.
“In an era where it’s more and more expensive to get that college degree and often people don't get a job, I think we really need to look at these skilled careers. And what that means is we have to begin to market that,” she said.
The coalition also rolled out a website, where job seekers can take a quiz to learn about how their competencies line up with career paths in different industries. The site also has information about local job training opportunities.
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